All Articles Leadership Strategy Q-and-A: The Nature Conservancy's Michelle Lapinski

Q-and-A: The Nature Conservancy’s Michelle Lapinski

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The Nature Conservancy has a history of partnering with beverage and food companies on projects dealing with water conservation and sustainability. We spoke with Director of Corporate Practices Michelle Lapinski to learn more about the nonprofit’s corporate partnerships.

How long has The Nature Conservancy been working with beverage companies on water conservation and sustainability? What kinds of projects have there been, and what have been the results?

Businesses depend on a reliable supply of clean water to keep operations moving smoothly and products moving to markets. Through work with the conservancy, they are able to reduce risks from unsustainable sourcing and understand global and local water-supply issues better and what can be done to reduce risks and realize opportunities related to water. We can bring science, global-mapping tools and decision-support frameworks to companies to ensure reliable water supply for their business and surrounding communities and ensure ongoing long-term investments in watersheds they depend on.

The conservancy started working on corporate water stewardship with beverage companies beginning in 2008. Our work has included:

  • Quantifying the water footprint for companies such as Coca-Cola associated with their beverage products, as well as the total water use in their bottling plants and supply farms (e.g., sugar cane, sugar beets, cranberries, oranges, vegetables and barley).
  • Developing corporate goals focusing on restoring water flow and water quality in watersheds in which they operate.
  • Assessing business risks associated with water availability, water quality and potential ecological or social impact.
  • Developing economic models to compare water solutions, including cost comparison of man-made and natural infrastructure.
  • Designing watershed-restoration projects to help offset water use or to reduce business risks.
  • Encouraging and facilitating participation in the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s water-certification program for companies such as Coca-Cola, Dow and Rio Tinto.
  • Aiding the creation of water funds as a unique investment vehicle to ensure long-term sustainability of source-water supply for companies such as FEMSA and SABMiller.

What are the biggest threats to the world’s water supply, and how is The Nature Conservancy addressing them?

The biggest threats are unsustainable water consumption and pollution. This results in depletion and degradation of the water supply for businesses, cities and farms, as well as local and regional economies, food security, ecosystem health, cultural values and even national security. The conservancy is bringing solutions to address these issues in two primary ways.

  • We conduct research to document the degree and extent of these threats, such as the degree to which water sources have been depleted worldwide. We develop methods and tools, such as a water-footprinting accounting method Coca-Cola is using and a water-fund model FEMSA, SABMiller and Bavaria are investing in, to enable companies to quantify their impact and dependency, develop corporate strategy and invest in long-term supply.
  • We work directly with governments, corporations, cities, farmers and local communities to design and implement solutions to these problems (i.e., using less and polluting less).

Other than water issues, what are the most important environmental issues that beverage and food companies should take a role in addressing?

Energy use and the impact of agriculture are at the top of the list. Worldwide, demand for goods and services, from agricultural commodities to cars, is growing dramatically. How that demand is met will have a profound effect on the future of the natural world. We know there are ways to improve how we source and use energy more efficiently to reduce habitat loss and greenhouse gases. Agriculture is essential — but we also know ways to apply fertilizer and irrigation more precisely, reduce pollution to waterways and minimize deforestation related to agriculture. The private sector has an important role in addressing these issues — to manage material risks to their business and ensure a strong and healthy environment for everyone.

How can companies get involved in partnering on conservation projects?

There are a variety of ways companies can get involved, but the most significant is through an effort to change their business practices. The conservancy works with companies to protect habitats and improve practices that minimize their impact on the environment. We are developing science-based tools and resources to help companies incorporate nature into their business decisions. The results are win-win — resulting in better business performance and improved conservation outcomes.

How much responsibility does the private sector have when it comes to conservation and preserving Earth and its resources?

The reality is the conservation movement simply can’t do it alone. Companies significantly affect — and depend on — natural and economic resources, and by working with them, we seek to influence their business decisions and sustainability to benefit nature and advance our conservation mission.

Companies have significant influence over how our natural resources are used and how financial capital is invested. The have a tremendous responsibility to do so well — and have a significant self-interest to do so.

Have companies taken more responsibility for the environment in recent years?

Yes. For most companies, their sustainability journey started with regulatory compliance and cleaning up spills, then preventing them. Companies set waste goals, then energy-efficiency and carbon-emissions goals, and next water. All along, these efforts were driven by companies seeking to minimize risk and reduce costs.

Today, companies are realizing nature is an essential and fragile asset to their businesses. This has led them to look at ways to value nature and to change how they make decisions. They have also seen how nature can produce opportunities and value for their companies and how it can be another tool for driving innovation and business advantage. Companies viewing conservation as a key business strategy is the next wave.